Cusco and the struggles of high altitude training

The altitude in Medellin was difficult to handle but as we got to Cusco we realised that was going to be a real struggle.

We had booked the Inca Trail a couple months back and wanted to make sure to arrive in Cusco a few days before the tour started to get some training in. We had heard that Tony de Souza, ex-UFC fighter and the guy who invented the Peruvian neck tie and the "De Souza control" (which led to the Truck position) was teaching at a local gym, Bunker Cusco, and were eager to train with him.

However we had totally underestimated the altitude component! Cusco is a fascinating city: the contrast between the Incan ruins, the Spanish architecture and the modern world creates a magical atmosphere. However, the old Incan capital also sits at over 3600 metres above sea level; as soon as we landed we started feeling dizzy and by night time I had turned into a useless zombie, unable to sleep, breathe and eat, let alone train BJJ (although Marcus didn't feel as effected). And stairs? Forget it. Luckily, on day 3 I started to feel a bit better so we decided to hit the gym.

We showed up at Bunker on a Tuesday morning and were welcomed by one of the gym's managers, Diego. Diego is a super friendly purple belt, originally from Cusco but he actually grew up in London and used to train with one of our team mates, Sonia, years back. Small world!

Diego told us that Tony only took the Monday evening and Tuesday morning classes, teaching his own style which he calls 'Cholitzu'. The word Cholitzu came about by fusing the words jiu jitsu and cholo, a term which generally refers to people with various amounts of Amerindian racial ancestry.

Tony's style was very different from what we were used to, but extremely interesting with a huge focus on flowing. That first day we worked on techniques to counter the knee slice, with variations we hadn't seen before.

Tony is such an interesting and humble character. From his UFC days he seems to have changed quite a bit, adopting a very alternative and simple lifestyle. He would often come to the gym with his adorable children and beautiful wife (who also train!) and run his classes in a question and answer style. Some days we worked on techniques from the back, with a very interesting focus of getting a cross body control (opposite arm and leg) rather than the traditional two hooks. Other days we worked on chokes from turtle 🐢 and half guard techniques, all no-gi. In sparring he is incredibly smooth, and has killer chokes (to be expected from the inventor of the Peruvian Necktie!). He teaches his classes in both (very good) English and Spanish. His brother Nico is a brown belt and teaches several of the other classes during the week. If you ever visit Cusco and get the chance to train with Tony, it is definitely time well spent and you will learn something new.

We also decided to stick around for Diego's class that night. He started with an easy warm up; well, easy for everyone else except Marcus and I as we were still acclimatizing to the lack of oxygen; after two rounds of jogging around the small mat we were very fatigued and during my second round of sparring I had to tap just because I was so out of breath I was about to pass out. I started to feel anxious about my ability to survive the Inca Trail which we were heading out on the very next day.

The next day we had a super early start; our Alpaca Expedition guide, Joel, picked us up at 4.30am. After a two hours drive we arrived at the start of the Trail where our porters, also known at the Green Machines, where already busy setting up camp for breakfast.

One word about the porters: these guys are super human! They each carry about 30kg up and down the trail for 4 days, somehow managing to get to camp before everyone else to set up the tents and to get the meals ready. What's more, they do all of this with a huge smile on their face and even they'll clap at you when you finally make it to camp, about 2 hours after they did (which was a bit embarrassing)!

By dinner time we realised why we paid so much for the tour with Alpaca Expeditions. Alpaca sets up a truly impeccable experience and the food is top level. The chef, Walter, managed to cook the most delicious 5 course meals with very limited equipment every day, and we always went to bed completely stuffed.

The hike was challenging but definitely worth it, with many hidden ruins along the way. On day 4 we reached Machu Picchu. The view of it from the Sun Gate was spectacular and we spent about 3 hours walking around the site, trying to imagine what life Incan must have been like during the Incan empire. We learned, for example, that Incas used young boys' urine to wash their hair (too bad Marcus is slowly but surely reaching his 30's)!

When we returned to Cusco from the Inca trail we decided to stick around for a couple more weeks. Yes, the lack of oxygen and the cold nights were annoying but Cusco's stone streets were just too charming, the food was amazing – the city has some of the best vegetarian food in South America – and finally we wanted to train as much as we could with Tony. One weekend the guys held an open mat at a popular hostel (Loki Hostel) which was a fun experience rolling in the sun in the courtyard of an old colonial building, followed by a seminar with a black belt from Lima, Pablo De Noriega Lazo.

During the days Marcus would take Spanish lessons at a local school called Mundo Antiguo, then we would explore the city and the surrounds: we visited the stunning vivid crystal blue/green of Lake Humantay high in the Salkantay mountains, visited a wildlife park for rescued animals as well as various museums. I was also able to continue my yoga practice in a local school called the Healing House.

Unfortunately for me, during my last week in Cusco I managed to hurt my pinky toe during a warm up before class – it dislocated and was sprained quite badly, so we had to spend the rest of that night in hospital just to make sure it wasn't broken! This made it a bit more difficult to train both BJJ and Yoga, but I still managed to continue.

We loved our few weeks in Cusco, it was a much welcome break from constantly being on the move and the people we met were incredibly welcoming. However by the end we were very excited to move on to our next stop,the motherland of Jiu Jitsu: Brazil 🇧🇷🇧🇷🇧🇷.

Alessia and Marcus